On July 7, 2014, three candidates vying to fill a vacancy on Washtenaw’s 22nd circuit court participated in a League of Women Voters forum.
Pat Conlin, Veronique Liem and Michael Woodyard will compete in the nonpartisan Aug. 5 primary, which will advance the top two candidates to the Nov. 4 general election. The winner of that contest will fill the open seat left by judge Donald Shelton, who turned 70 in June. According to Michigan state law, only a person under the age of 70 can be appointed or run for the position of judge.
The circuit court tries felonies and criminal matters, family law, and civil disputes where claims are greater than $25,000. However, the docket for this particular seat on the circuit court is heavily weighted toward family cases.
Conlin and Liem are local attorneys, while Woodyard works in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. At the July 7 forum, the candidates fielded questions covered topics including: family, the visibility of the court and general judicial philosophy.
A second seat on the court is also up for election, as judge David Swartz is at the end of a six-year term. He is running uncontested to retain his 22nd circuit court incumbent seat.
On its Vote411.org website, the LWV has posted candidates’ written responses to questions: [22nd circuit court candidate responses]
At the July 7 LWV forum, the candidates made opening statements, answered six questions and then made closing statements. The forum was moderated by Miriam Eve Borenstein, with questions predetermined by the league after asking for public submissions.
Candidates’ remarks are summarized below. To view the recorded video from the 22nd circuit court LWV forum, use Community Television Network’s video on demand.
Pat Conlin: Conlin said he’s proud to have the opportunity to seek to serve his community. His family has roots in public service, and 20 judges locally and across the state have endorsed him. People often aren’t familiar with judicial candidates, but it’s very important for people to become well acquainted with the candidates, he said. Conlin continued, saying he’s been a lawyer for 16 years. Before that he was a school teacher and service employee. He said he’s well rounded with the depth of knowledge to serve well as judge.
Michael Woodyard: Woodyard thanked the League of Women Voters and CTN for hosting the event. Echoing Conlin, he called the forum a great opportunity for voters to get acquainted with the candidates. He said he’s worked as public servant in the prosecutor’s office in Wayne County for the past 12 years. Personally, he’s a longtime resident of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, and he added that his children attend school in Washtenaw County.
Veronique Liem: This is an important race, Liem said, especially because 65% of the cases in the circuit court deal with family law – and this seat is designated to hear family cases. Liem said that as a child of divorce, she cares deeply about child custody cases. She also wants to make sure that victims of domestic abuse feel comfortable in the courtroom too. As she has done for the past 25 years as a lawyer, she would advocate for cooperative methods of resolving family law and other cases. Being a judge would allow her to give back to the community and her profession.
Question: What kind of cases does the 22nd circuit court try and how can we be a better-informed public about the role of our court system?
Conlin: The circuit court tries felony criminal matters, family law, and civil disputes where claims are greater than $25,000, Conlin responded, noting that Liem correctly pointed out that this seat on the court would primarily deal with family cases. Washtenaw County uses a unified trial court, meaning probate judges can hear civil and criminal matters and the circuit judges can hear probate matters. “It’s important that the judges in this county are well-versed across all areas of the law to serve the public,” he said. Lastly, Conlin said he hoped residents would be made aware of the court system, although not as participants. Rather, there are opportunities to serve on juries, and people should watch forums like this one.
Woodyard: There are many ways public can be involved or aware of the court, perhaps as a litigant, juror or witness. Beyond those roles, people are free to come in to the circuit court and see the court in action for themselves. But unfortunately, people don’t often realize that it’s a public institution. The circuit court is a court of general jurisdiction – felonies, divorce, civil disputes, name changes, adoption, juvenile delinquency, child protection proceedings. He suggested that the court’s website has a thorough description of its role.
Liem: Conlin and Woodyard had done a good job explaining the court system, Liem said. In addition, there are also specialty courts that are being developed in the district and circuit court system. As an example of that, she cited the new peacemaking court, pioneered by judge Timothy Connors, based on tribal methods of dispute resolutions. People should know about these new courts, and the issue of rehabilitation compared to putting people in jail.
Question: What is your general judicial philosophy?
Woodyard: Boiling down his philosophy to one word, that would be “respect,” Woodyard said, meaning respect for the institution by making sure serving the community is valued more than serving lawyers. Secondly, laws are made by the legislature – and a judge has to recognize and respect the separation of powers. Thirdly, it’s important to respect the litigants – not just the lawyers, but the people themselves, the criminal defendants, the families who are in turmoil, and most of all, the children who appear in court through no fault of their own.
Liem: A judge first serves the community and is there to render justice. A judge should treat each and every participant in a case with respect, regardless of the individual’s background. Furthermore, a judge shouldn’t be naive, but should look for solutions that allow the potential for individuals to grow as people: “I think the judge can be a catalyst to provide resources to the litigants who appear before the judge and need some assistance in solving some important problems.”
Conlin: “Compassionate efficiency,” Conlin answered. People are not in the best place in their lives when they’re in court — particularly so in family court. Emotions and stakes are both high, but judges need to understand where the people are coming from. It’s also very important that the judge knows the law precisely and that the litigant understands that the judge is an expert of the law, so she or he feels that they are being properly heard. Efficiency and compassion might not seem to go together, but it’s important that cases are heard efficiently, Conlin said.
Question: What challenges might you encounter in moving from your current position to a new role as circuit court judge, and how would you deal with those challenges?
Liem: Liem said she’s currently an advocate – and advocacy is different from being a judge where she’d be the one rendering decisions. Still, Liem noted she has experience in this capacity as an arbitrator and also as a mediator, where she’s helped parties reach amenable agreements. Being a judge would be a challenge, “but I believe I can rely on the experience I have had to help me bridge the gap.”
Conlin: Liem had done a good job explaining the difference between advocacy and judgeship, Conlin said. But being a successful judge relies on the personality of that person. Conlin explained that as a lawyer, he approaches cases with a breadth of evaluation akin to a judge. He examines both sides, in order to advocate better for his client. “Becoming a judge is not going to be a huge leap for me, because it’s really how I’ve always evaluated a case that comes before me.” He, too, has been an arbitrator and mediator, Conlin noted.
Woodyard: To respond to the question, Woodward said he needed to provide some context. For the past 12 years, he has worked as an assistant prosecuting attorney in Wayne County and he’s been in court nearly every workday, appearing before numerous judges and courts in a variety of situations. He’s argued hundreds of different motions, he said. Becoming a judge is not the next logical step for a lawyer, because judgeship requires a unique skill set – an open mind, compassion, an ability to be decisive – which he characterized as practical knowledge that doesn’t come from simply reading a book. “I think you need to become involved on a close daily basis with that particular operation to observe how judges render decisions that are fair and just. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.”
Question: What constitutes a good divorce?
Conlin: Conlin said that when you’re talking about families, a good divorce involves the two parties realizing that the kids are the most important consideration. A good divorce requires two parents who can work together and put the best interest of their children first. That doesn’t always happen, so for a judge, a good divorce is one where an abundance of information is at hand, so that the judge can make the best decision on behalf of the children. So it’s also important to provide adequate information — the more information, the better.
Woodyard: Ideally, a good divorce is one that doesn’t happen, Woodyard said. But when a divorce takes place, it can be made better. The key for the judge is to impart to the involved parties an understanding of the ramifications of divorce. The children involved don’t often understand the divorce, and it can be traumatic for them, so it’s vital that the judge is keeping children’s best interests in mind.
Liem: A “good divorce” is one that ends conflict between parents, and that keeps children away from parental conflict, she said. Both parties need to be heard and the priorities of the children need to be put above anyone else’s. A good divorce is also one that stays out of court. Liem suggested that couples pursue mediation or the collaborative divorce approach rather than take the case into court.
Question: If elected, you’ll be trying cases dealing with children and their well-being. How have your experiences prepared you to deal with such scenarios?
Woodyard: Woodyard said he has worked on child abuse cases in the prosecutor’s office in Wayne County for six years, where he had the opportunity to speak with children and parents involved in cases where children were physically and sexually abused. He continued, saying that “the experience of serving families in those terrible moments of their lives has instilled in me a deep commitment that I will do whatever it takes to ensure the well-being of a child…” He added that the court plays a very important role for children whose lives are in turmoil.
Liem: Children in these situations do well when parents do well, Liem said. It’s important not only for their own sake, but for their children’s sake, that parents are in a healthy place. Liem also noted her own strong experience of 25 years in family law. She has experience litigating, but she said she doesn’t encourage litigation. Instead, Liem said she prefers mediation. She serves on the executive board of the Collaborative Practice Institute of Michigan.
Conlin: Conlin agreed with both candidates that maintaining the best interests of the children is paramount, which can be complex in custody disputes. He added that while he hasn’t specialized in juvenile matters, through his work in general practice during the past 16 years he’s had experience in juvenile court. In criminal cases in juvenile court, it’s vital that decisions rendered on children don’t harm them unfairly later in life. He expressed some caution about the use of personal protection orders.
Question: How are cases prioritized in this court and how do you plan to improve or change its operations or procedures?
Liem: The guidelines for family law cases set by the Michigan Supreme Court are that cases involving children should be heard in six months, and within one year for cases not involving children. But other types of cases take longer, like medical malpractice, while others, like criminal cases, need to move relatively quickly as well. Nonetheless, Liem said that all cases should be given their fair day in court and everybody in the court system should be treated with respect, and all the facts need to be heard.
Conlin: Conlin said he’s not yet a judge and he doesn’t play one on TV, but if he were he would look into increasing the number of days the court dedicates to immediate relief, which occurs when a party files a motion to have interim or temporary relief. Conlin said he would like to see up to two days a week where these motions are heard – instead of one day, or just one half day, per week. That could potentially streamline cases and prevent complications. Lastly, he noted that there shouldn’t be artificial barriers to cases being heard.
Woodyard: There are time constraints on basically every court case, according to the Michigan Supreme Court, he said, and a certain percentage of cases must be resolved within certain timeframes. But this creates a tension between timeliness and fairness. Ultimately, ensuring fairness is more important than meeting a schedule, but “litigants are entitled to a timely resolution of their disputes.” Woodyard promised his day-to-day responsibilities as judge would be handled efficiently.
Woodyard: Woodyard said he enjoyed the opportunity to answer questions. And he encouraged voters to take a close look at the candidates. Being a judge is much more than an extension of being a lawyer, he said, and he is alone among the candidates in having the required experience: appearing in court and advocating for justice. Woodyard explained that he’s served in multiple types of cases, like personal protection orders, child abuse and delinquency, domestic violence and others, which all fall under family law. “My hope is that voters look at the candidates and select the candidate who has the broadest practical knowledge combined with the technical expertise to serve,” he said.
Liem: Liem said that 40 years ago she came to Washtenaw County with few resources or connections. She obtained her MBA and subsequently her law degree from the University of Michigan. She added that she couldn’t have imagined the path that’s led her here. “If I am elected, I will be very mindful to protect the children involved in custody cases, render decisions that help people grow as individuals, and to promote family-friendly solutions…,” Liem said. She noted she won’t shy away from issuing rulings. She concluded by saying she’s endorsed by more than 100 attorneys, the mayors of Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Saline, most of the Ann Arbor city council, state Rep. Jeff Irwin and many others. She thanked those watching for wanting to be informed about the race.
Conlin: Conlin said it was a privilege to there and even to be running for a position as judge. Conlin’s father was a judge for more than 20 years in Washtenaw County, and Conlin said he grew up seeing his father coming home after making the difficult decisions each day. That helped him understand the drive required to be a judge. And while this seat is dedicated to family issues for now, Conlin said this judge will handle other matters as well. He has a wide experience in general civil law on top of a solid base in family law and would be able to render tough decisions. Conlin said all three candidates are qualified for the job and he encouraged voters to review all three candidates thoroughly.
The last day to register for the Aug. 5 election was July 7. The last day to register for the Nov. 4 general election is Oct. 6. To check your voter registration or to find your polling place, visit the Michigan Secretary of State’s website.
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